When a frigid cold wave knocked out 50 power plants in Texas during February's Super Bowl week, utilities had to impose rolling blackouts across entire communities with a "blunt ax," said Robert Shapard, CEO of Dallas-based Oncor, the state's largest transmission company.

Next year, when Oncor completes installing 3.4 million smart meters throughout its system, future rolling blackouts could be tailored to protect nursing homes, compressor stations that keep natural gas flowing and other priority facilities, Shapard said. In theory, a "smart" rolling blackout could even bypass homes with patients on ventilators, because the utility can control power delivery to individual meters, he said.

Such capabilities explain why the evolution of the "smart grid" is proceeding differently in the utility and customer sectors, say Shapard and Greg Guthridge, global managing director of utility services for the consulting and technology services firm Accenture.

In the United States, smart grid investments that improve utilities' ability to manage the grid are moving faster overall than the rollout of smart meters, thermostats, appliances and displays at the household level, Guthridge said. "We are seeing not necessarily a slowdown in the smart grid rollout, but certainly a pause in the momentum" across the United States, he said. Most of the investment currently in the United States is driven by utilities seeking to get the grid's backbone infrastructure modernized, he added.

A new survey of consumer attitudes released today by Accenture indicates that U.S. consumers are more interested in smart grid applications that save them money and automate the management of their electricity use, rather than giving them direct control over heating, cooling and appliances as prices fluctuate during the day.

Asked which smart grid features they would most prefer, 53 percent of the survey respondents said "technology that can completely automate the management of my electricity." Just 35 percent indicated interest in hands-on management of their electricity usage through a home computer or portal, while 23 percent would like to do the same on a tablet personal computer or other personal electronic device.

Some states racing ahead of others
The focus on the smart grid's utilitarian advantages has become the dominant story, supplanting the more visionary scenarios of several years ago, in which customers were pictured as responding to real-time changes in electricity prices to fine-tune their power consumption.

But conclusions about smart grid acceptance in the United States are skewed by the patchwork nature of the deployment, Guthridge said. The story is different depending on which state you're in.

The installation of smart meters for consumers is concentrated in 38 states, according to the Edison Foundation, and only 22 states are aiming to equip at least half of their customers with the advanced meters by 2019.

Leading the way are states like Texas and California where government-directed programs are under way or smart grid demonstration projects were funded by the federal stimulus funds. The gap between first-mover states and the wait-and-see followers is growing, Guthridge said.

"We are absolutely seeing certain states and regions moving ahead of the rest," and that difference is accelerating, he said.

In Texas, the motivation for statewide smart grid deployment was practical, said Shapard, the new chairman of the GridWise Alliance, a coalition of utilities, vendors and smart grid entrepreneurs that is pushing the new technologies.

"We're fully deploying meters in Texas, and we believe as a state that it's a good investment" for both utilities and consumers, he said. But, he adds, "the state of Texas did it primarily for operational reasons. The commissioners want us to do a better job restoring power after a storm and keeping the lights on."

'Set it and forget it' a popular option
Oncor's smart grid meter will cover $800 million, paid for by a $2.19 monthly charge on customers' utility bills that regulators approved.

"The things we're doing on the distribution grid with intelligent, automatic switches that will speak to one another -- they'll detect outages, they'll isolate them, they'll route around them, they'll reclose automatically -- it's pretty phenomenal. It allows us to minimize outages and reduce outage times," Shapard said.

But, he noted, there's more debate about consumers' use of smart meters.

"Once we get close to full deployment [of smart meters], we're going to need to really demonstrate the benefits" to consumers, Shapard said. "Once you see that, I think that's when you see the next wave. There will be people who won't change a thing, and people that do. What we're going to prove is, if someone wants to measure energy consumption and use it smarter and save money, we're actually going to give them tools to do that. If somebody doesn't want to do that, then you're not going to get them to change."

Consumers' responses from the Texas program will start to become apparent in one to two years, Shapard said.

Guthridge said there are likely to be surprises in the kinds of smart grid applications that are offered to consumers, and how consumers will respond.

A very large portion of consumers want smart grid applications that will conserve electricity and lower their bills without their active involvement. Just "set it and forget it," Guthridge said. That will be one option.

Show consumers the money
A smaller but still significant part of the population will want to be directly involved in their electricity usage, he added.

"Some consumers will pay a premium for sophisticated energy management channels," such as the ability to regulate air conditioning remotely over a cellphone connection.

Utilities will be challenged to understand and respond to their customers' different levels of interest in the smart grid. For more than a century, they've treated them all the same, Guthridge said. "They really try to achieve a one-size-fits-all approach, and their regulators don't like it when utilities try to create different offers for different population segments," Guthridge said. Some utilities may choose to partner with retailers that know how to market differently to different groups of consumers, he added.

The biggest marketing edge would be a significant increase in electricity prices, whether caused by climate policies or costs of new generation. "That's the most important variable," Guthridge said, as the Accenture survey shows. "If you're only saving a couple of dollars a month, that's a hard sell."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500